FEDERAL WAY, WA (Talon News) — Americans have responded with overwhelming generosity to meet relief needs in the wake of the devastating December 26 earthquake and tsunamis in Asia. But how do they know their donations are being used as they intended?

Richard E. Stearns, president of the Christian relief and development organization World Vision, said donors need to know their gifts are being used responsibly.

In a press release, Stearns suggested that before giving to any agency, donors should do a little homework. He said they need to ask what percentage of their donation goes to administration, request a copy of the organization’s annual report, and find out how long the agency has been operating.

In addition, he said, if supporting a particular charitable project on an ongoing basis, donors should request periodic updates on the project they’re contributing to.

Stearns emphasized that charities should be using donations for the purpose for which they were given, and if for any reason a charity ends up unable to use a gift for the project it was given for, the charity should communicate with its donors and offer to refund the gift.

Responsible organizations carefully monitor their programs and costs, Stearns said in the release. Last year, Stearns said World Vision used 87 percent of its total revenue to directly benefit children and families in need.

But while donors are considering to which charitable relief organization they should donate, groups have to address serious misconceptions in the American public about disaster relief.

Top 10 Myths of Disaster Relief

In a press release, Rich Moseanko, a relief director for World Vision, explained the truth behind what he called the top 10 myths of disaster relief.

One is that Americans can help by collecting blankets, shoes, and clothing.

However according to Moseanko, “The cost of shipping these items — let alone the time it takes to sort, pack, and ship them — is prohibitive. Often, those items are manufactured for export to the U.S. from these same countries. It is far more efficient to purchase them locally. Cash is the better solution.”

The next myth is that helping the living is always more important than burying the dead.

“In refugee camps and epidemic situations where people die of diseases, it is essential to dispose of the bodies within a short period of time,” Moseanko said. “If they died of other causes such as drowning, they are less of a health risk but pose an impediment to relief efforts and delay the mourning process.”

Another common myth, Moseanko said, is that the United States has to airlift food and medicines to the disaster site.

“Food is virtually always available within a day’s drive of the disaster site,” Moseanko said. “Purchasing the food locally is more cost-efficient, and it ensures that the food is appropriate to local residents’ tastes and religious requirements. Medicines are often available within the country, too. India for example, has a large pharmaceutical industry. Because medicines are high-value, low-weight commodities, in some cases they … must be airlifted in to save lives. In massive disasters, it sometimes is necessary to airlift other supplies as well.”

Moseanko said another commonly held myth among donors is that sending cash won’t work.

Reinforcing the comments from Stearns, Moseanko said, “Reputable agencies send 80 percent or more of cash donations to the disaster site; the rest goes for administration, operating expenses and monitoring the efficiency of their own operations.”

Another myth, Moseanko said, is that once people survive the immediate crisis they are safe.

However, the truth is quite to the contrary, Moseanko said.

“The immediate catastrophe kills quickly; survivors can face a slower death from hunger, disease and even criminal predators,” Moseanko said. “While emergency medical teams certainly are needed for people injured in a disaster, the best way to keep survivors healthy is to provide clean water and adequate sanitation. Cholera and dysentery can result from drinking contaminated water; malaria-spreading mosquitoes breed in standing water.”

It’s also a myth, Moseanko said, that developing countries depend on foreign expertise. He said that most relief and recovery efforts are accomplished by local aid groups, police, firefighters and neighbors before international teams arrive.

Moseanko added another myth is relief needs are so intense that almost anyone can fly to the scene to offer help. Definitely not, he said.

“Professionals with specialized skills and overseas disaster experience are often deployed to disaster sites,” Moseanko said. “Volunteers without those skills can do more harm than good, and siphon off critical logistics and translations services. Hiring qualified disaster survivors is much more cost efficient and provides much needed employment.”

Another myth, according to Moseanko, is that survivors feel lucky to be alive.

“Shock, trauma and the mourning for loved ones who died are common among disaster survivors,” he explained. “Often, they wish it was they who died instead of their loved ones. Treating these emotional needs is an essential component of relief efforts.”

And while many people believe that insurance and governments can cover losses, nothing is further from the truth.

“The vast majority of the world’s population has never heard of an insurance policy,” Moseanko said. “Further, governments of poor countries can barely meet ongoing social service needs, let alone provide a safety net like FEMA. Disaster survivors must bear these costs alone.”

It’s not true either, Moseanko said, that people are helpless in the face of natural disasters.

“The United States is proof that tougher building codes, early warning and disaster preparedness can save lives,” he said. “Even in poor countries, communities are taking steps to mitigate the loss of life in future emergencies.”

World Vision is a member of a variety of charitable monitoring organizations including the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability.

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